The Philippines, 1879
My papa loved his town. He loved his family. He loved my mama. He loved me. I never doubted it—ever. He did not seem to love his own father. I never understood what made him so bitter and sour towards my Lolo, or why he never worked the fields with him like their ancestors before them. Papa would say that they were complete opposites. It was almost like he was allergic to my Lolo. Since he was 17 and moved out from Lolo’s house to live with my mama’s family, my papa took up many jobs around the village.
He built my schoolhouse, the new church, the bridge to the big city, the telegraph wire, and even the house I grew up in. Once he married my mama and my sister was born, he shaved people at Mr. Mallonga’s barber shop and sold feed at the Roxas’ store. That kept us fed and all three of us in school. At my confirmation, the photographer, a city man with a curled mustache half my parents’ age, mentioned something that would change my family forever.
“Now, hold still, all of you! No smiling!” he reminded, “Ten more seconds!”
My little brother Benito kept pinching my back thigh to make me ruin the photograph. My sister Francesca noticed his assault and flicked her finger at the nip of his neck.
The photographer capped his wooden box.
“All done, Ramoses!”
Once the 15-minute agony was done, she’d started chasing him back home.
“How much do I owe you?” Papa had asked the man, counting the bills in his billfold.
“TWENTY! Do I look like the King?”
“Santiago, pay the man!” Mama urged, “A good memory is worth more than money,”
My papa counted out twenty with anger beneath his breath. “Who’s next after this? The Governor-General?” he quipped.
“No, a bunch of Americans and other foreigners up in Laoag,”
“Foreigners in that town? Impossible,”
“They want me to take pictures of their huge beans to send back home,”
“What beans?” Papa cackled.
“Cocoa, I think. One of those groups want to take me with them when they sail down south to find more. That’s why they’re visiting our lonely corner of the world, I guess,”
“Down south? Manila? Sounds like a waste of time to go cocoa-hunting in the big city,”
“No, all the way to the deep south. Cebu—”
“CEBU? How much are they paying you?”
“Fifty American dollars. They promised half at the beginning and half at the end. The guides and translators they hired only got fifteen,”
Papa couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had to look at me to see if he were going crazy.
“Do they even speak Spanish?”
“A few, but one of them already knows Tagalog. Some American named ‘Parter,’ ‘Per-er,’… ‘Porter,’ I think. Wears glasses. He’s coming down here with his group next week,”
I could see the gold coins in Papa’s eyes. He was already counting the dollars in his head. He spent the next few days talking about it with us every meal. He would meet them when they arrived and would try to get them to hire him as a translator. Mama would try quashing his schemes with the reminder that a new face in town would bait conmen and tricksters to compete with Papa.
I got home from school one day to the smell of my mama’s fresh pan de sal baking from my kitchen. It wasn’t my birthday, nor was my Lolo’s cart waiting outside. It was a much larger, newer buggy with a young, white steed yoked on. My papa was sitting on the porch with the palest people I’d ever seen.
One had yellow, golden hair and was about my sister’s age. His papa was starting to go bald and wore a set of glasses like my Lolo. Another, fatter man carried a pistol on his hip like our neighbor, a policeman. He had black hair like us, but with sky-blue eyes. The adults were sipping rum and sharing pan de sal with the boy. The American father handed a piece of what looked like a brown, thin polboron sweet wrapped in foil and paper.
“Pedro!” Papa called from the porch, “Come try this chocolate!”
I slowly approached. Papa broke off and handed me a piece of the bitterest food I’d ever tasted. I barely swallowed the bite. The foreigners didn’t look at me very closely and continued discussing their business. Only the younger one seemed to pay any attention to me.
“My boy speaks excellent Spanish, Mr. Porter,”
“He’s an Indio, Porter,” the fat man said, “Not so common among them,”
The golden-haired boy said something to me in English.
“My name is Samuel Q. Porter. You must be Pedro,” his father greeted me in Tagalog, “My son’s name is Allister,”
I tried pronouncing it back to him while shaking his hand, but my stumbling only caused light laughter. I grinned along with them, seeing this as the only relief from the most confusing and condescending conversation of my life so far.
“Did you like that chocolate, Pedro?
“Don’t worry. We brought more samples for the stores out here. You’ll find them on the shelves one day,”
The older men spoke more about business until sunset, when the American shook Papa’s hand, said his goodbyes in Tagalog, and headed for our guest house. They slept in my Lolo’s room to the ire of Mama.
The conversation over dinner was even more animated from Papa’s end.
“He shook my hand, Isabel!” he exclaimed.
“Did he pay you?” she asked, annoyed than ever.
“Then, I don’t want to hear it. Unless they pay us for room and board, and the food I had to serve them, this isn’t exactly something worth celebrating,”
“I showed them around my father’s fields,”
“You haven’t been there in years. You guided them around there?”
“Not around there exactly. There’s some forest behind the irrigation ditch and river. I used to play there around Benito’s age. I know it like the back of my hand!”
“The crocodile watering hole? What were they after?”
“They want cocoa beans. My great-grandfather grew some there before, but they got diseased and he decided to focus on rice and sugarcane like the rest of town,”
“I bet the old man was happy to see you,”
“He was, but I wasn’t,”
She rolled her eyes. “Francesca. Pedro,” she called to us, “I think their dinner has cooled down. Go and deliver it to them in the baskets, please,”
I managed to waddle my way with an ungodly amount of food down the dirt path to the guest house after her. My ears could overhear their exchanges.
“Mr. Porter, I could pull some strings with the Governor-General. We don’t have to pay that old Indio a cent!” the fat man offered.
“I don’t want to buy a field and have to run it surrounded by enemies, Señor Cruz,”
“Well, you’re already surely surrounded by competitors. Do you think those teams from Fry or Stollwerck, or Favarger would hesitate? If not us pulling strings, it’ll be them! You don’t understand how things are done here. There’s no need to pay the geezer or his kid who owns this dump if we just let the government take it from them,”
“I don’t want to have to pay for perpetual security when they snap. The company sent us out here to find new breeds of cocoa, and to dig our heels and to have a reliable operation in the Far East to service Hong Kong, Singapore, and our partners in Japan. I think a bit of caution is needed, especially when this seems to be the only field that grows this bean,”
“This is giving me a headache. I’m headed to bed!”
“Cruz, I know we have different methods, but I can do this: We will give him sugar prices before we give him cocoa prices,”
Despite this, the fat man stormed off upstairs.
My sister’s giggling by the stable broke my concentration. I had wondered where she’d run off to. I’d handed over the food to the grateful man and headed over to investigate her laughter.
“‘Allister’,” she said perfectly to the boy.
“Francesca, let’s go!” I reminded her.
“In a minute!”
“Buenas ‘Nochees,’ Fran-cesca,” the boy tried to pronounce back to her, fixing the baskets in his arms.
She giggled away and kept laughing all the way back home.
“You like him?” I asked.
“Yes. Don’t tell Papa or Mama,”
“You don’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t even know what you’re saying!”
“He’s learning Spanish for me,”
“I think he’s learning Spanish for his father’s job,”
“You’re too young to understand, Pedro,”
I found it hard to sleep that night with my sister’s repetition of that boy’s name. It was almost like she was praying to him. The next day, I could barely stay up in school to pay attention. In the window, I could see Papa and the guests riding their buggy down the road. Allister waved at me while his father counted Papa’s pay.
Before dismissal, I could hear two cracks that echoed across town. The hurried buggy soon followed. I rushed home, not five minutes’ walk from school. A trail of blood led from the buggy into my house. Groans and shouting could be heard outside from the kitchen. The fat man was seated on the dinner table with his gun resting on the other side. The boy was hovering over my Mama and his own father. My sister snugly locked her arms with his. Benito followed right behind me and rushed into Papa’s bloodied arms.
Papa’s wounded foot rested on Mama’s seated lap. She washed his bleeding foot while tightening a rope around his ankle.
“Francesca, run to Dr. Paul!” she ordered, shooing away the new couple.
Benito began to look nauseous and ran upstairs soon after.
“We run on his property,” the fat man began, “We trespass with his son. He shoots at us from nowhere. We shoot one shot back. Yes, Mr. Porter, I’m sure this Indio will accept sugar prices!”
“Lorenzo,” Porter gently asked, “Have we angered him?”
“No, Mr. Porter,” Papa answered, “That’s just the way he is. Shoot first and find out what he shot after,”
“My Spanish friend is much the same, you see. He wants the government to seize that land from your kin. I don’t approve of such methods myself, but I think he’ll convince the company to back him up if I report back emptyhanded. So, you think we can talk to your father to even things out?”
The fat man stormed off to the guest house in anger.
“Mr. Porter, I cannot walk. Even if I did, I wouldn’t spit in his direction!”
“We’re complete opposites. It would take forever to explain,”
Mama said in Ilocano, “We need the money. To pay for the doctor. To pay for-”
“I can go!” I said to Porter.
“Young Pedro, I don’t think this would be a good idea,” he explained, “I don’t think you know very much about what we have to discuss,”
“The boy can do it!” Papa told Porter, “He speaks Ilocano like me and can fulfill the agreement. He gets along with the old fool anyway,”
We departed for Lolo’s farm almost immediately. We’d planned our approach very carefully. I would walk up to him and make peaceful introductions for Porter first. Porter would follow with his apologies and his offer for me to translate.
Walking up the path to the house, Lolo ran up and embraced me tight with three kisses on the forehead. “How are you? How are you? How are you?” he greeted.
“Good, Lolo. Good, Lolo. Good, Lolo,” I would always greet back.
“Who’s the suit?”
“He’s an American. He said he was ‘exploring’ your land today,” I explained.
“Good God, I thought he was a robber or something. Well, nobody got hit. No harm done so far. What’s he doing out here anyway?”
“He wants to see the cocoa growing in the back and buy the land from you,”
“Why would I deal with a trespasser and why would he ask you to help him?”
“Papa asked me,”
“And why’s that?”
“Because the American hired him and he got shot in the foot,”
Lolo’s face turned pale. He almost looked like he was going to vomit like Benito.
“Where is he?” he gasped.
We rushed back home where the two made formal introductions, but nothing more. The shock and horror gripped Lolo from any conversation. Once we made it to the kitchen, Lolo jumped on and began to hug and kiss Papa on the forehead like me. Papa wasn’t in any mood for his affection.
Porter nudged me to translate. “Mr. Ramos,” he began, “I want to apologize for trespassing on your property. Your son was guiding me, and said you wouldn’t mind,”
“I accept your apology, Mr. Porter, but I don’t want to sell my land while my son is in danger,”
I began to explain everything I overheard—the fat man’s plan, the cocoa breeds, the money involved. He shook his head.
“How can my children, and even your Lola above, looking down at us, love me if I just give up their home for money?”
“I do love you!” Papa shouted.
Mama’s face and mine couldn’t believe what we were hearing.
“I do love you, Papa! You never loved me. Every time I came up with a new way to sustain our entire family, you would never appreciate what I do! Never a word about any of my accomplishments to anyone. It was always about yours and Mama’s! It was almost like living as a shame to my own family name. I couldn’t take it,”
The tears began to release out of my Lolo’s eyes. “Lorenzo, we’re different. You love to talk about your greatest accomplishments. I don’t. Anything I ever bragged about was not my greatest accomplishment. Having a son as talented and with such a beautiful family as yours is my greatest ever accomplishment. It is all I ever wanted,”
Papa’s eye began to water as our neighbor, the policeman, his colleagues, and the fat man entered our home with the doctor. Lolo was pointed out and walked away with the officers and out of our lives. He had fired a shot in anger against a Spaniard, a Peninsular. For that, he would die in prison not too long after. His land was divvied up between the Crown, Porter’s company, and Papa who would keep the big house and end up selling it for a song. The fat man would be assigned to govern the fields with his new crop. The war would come and see to it he wouldn’t profit much from his plunder. Allister would take the reigns after the war and would try to make amends with us as he did with my sister before they departed that first visit. He handed her a sample box of chocolates as the buggy was packed and he and his father headed back home.